Choreographic ritual in early modernist art, 1886-1910

Rushton, Carolyn Bolen, Department of Art History, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the renewal of the tradition of dance as ritual by some of the greatest luminaries of modernist art between the years 1886-1910 (from Symbolism through the culmination of Matisse's Fauvism). These modernist versions of choreographic ritual in the taxonomy I have constructed span the inherited poles of the Dance of Death and the Dance of Life.

Chapter One addresses the problem of Salome not only as the femme fatale par excellence, but mainly as woman and Jewess, standing for the doubly condemned scapegoat of a misogynist and racist era. Gustave Moreau's Salome is also representative of a major prefiguration of the shift that took place in the history of modern art away from the realism of the mid-nineteenth century to Symbolism's "spiritual naturalism." In Chapter Two I maintain that the medieval Dance of Death assumes unexpected fin-de-siècle configurations in Auguste Rodin's Gates of Hell (1880-1917) and Burghers of Calais (1884-86), Fernand Hodler's Eurythmy (1895), and Edvard Munch's Frieze of Life (1893-1900) and Dance of Life (1899- 1900). This return to the Middle Ages corresponds with the anti-Enlightenment tendencies and pessimism characterizing the end of the last century. It was nourished by such factors as the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the conflicts inherent in high capitalism, disillusionment in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, and outbreaks of new forms of pestilence (cholera, tuberculosis, and syphilis). Chapter Three examines the dances in Gauguin and Matisse's paintings and writings as signifiers of the artists' fundamental preoccupation with creation, paradise, and choreographic worship in "primitive," ancient, and popular forms. The concluding chapter examines the summation and conjunction of the themes of choreographic ritual in the realm of dance itself, specifically in The Rite of Spring choreographed by Nijinsky and performed by the Ballets Russes in 1913.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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